It’s exciting for an archaeologist to find a tomb filled with ancient remains… but it’s even more exciting to discover that beneath that tomb is another tomb!
In 2011, archaeologists in Peru were thrilled to find a tomb in the Lambayeque region containing a pre-Incan priestess and eight other bodies, but as the dig continued, the team found what they’re calling a “basement tomb.” The contents of the tomb are slowly revealing new things about the religious and political structure of the area.
The basement tomb contained four preserved bodies of “waterlogged human remains,” and it’s thought that the tomb was actually created with the intention of flooding. The bodies were stacked inside the tomb, with one particular elite individual decorated with shell and pearl beads, face covered with a copper sheet and wearing a spool-shaped earring bearing a wave design.
These indicators of status seem to denote that the three additional bodies in the tomb were intended to accompany the elite individual into the afterlife.
But the weirdest part is that the basement tomb was intentionally dug beneath the water table—in a region frequently subject to draught in ancient times. Notably, the tomb is part of ceremonial complex that archaeologists are suspecting was used for a cult that worshipped water.
Why would the ancient priests want a tomb to flood? Dig leader Wester La Torre has said that perhaps they thought this would ensure the region’s agricultural fertility for the year ahead—and while the tomb is technically pre-Inca, it may have been a precursor to later beliefs: “The Inca believed that the dead became a seed, which sprouted new life, the way that this was buried suggests the same process of fertilization, in which the seed, the person, is reborn.”
And while the dig team hasn’t yet identified whether the elite individual is male or female, it’s possible that person had something to do with the priestess discovered buried overhead in 2011.
Of course, there are dissenters who point out that there’s no reasonable way to know where the water table was 800 years ago. But regardless of whether the tomb flooded or not, both the burials are important additions to the historical record of a lesser-known period of world history in the region.
Peruvian Drinking Vessel (credit: Michael Moseley et al)
Binge drinking and arson—a crime of modern invention? Not entirely.
The Wari people of Cerro Baúl were drinking and burning things with enthusiasm in 1000 A.D., around the same time that they abandoned the town and other sites of cultural significance. Of course, the drinking and burning business isn’t as simple as it sounds—in fact, the Wari engaged in ritual binge drinking and ritual brewery burning.
It’s probably a good thing that today’s drunks don’t wander around towns burning down the breweries that produce their favorite grain-based beverages, but at Cerro Baúl, destroying their brewery was a necessary ceremonial component in the abandonment of the town.
According to the archeological evidence, there were 28 leaders who sat together in the brewery drinking pepper-spiced corn beer, a beverage very similar to chicha, a corn-based beer brewed by the Inca in modern-day Peru. After consuming copious amounts of alcohol, the Wari leaders—who were undoubtedly very much “in the bag” by this point, as it were—enthusiastically smashed their drinking vessels, preceded by setting fire to any and all surrounding flammable material. This had the consequence of leaving only the sections of stone wall standing, though these too collapsed over time.
Brewery at Cerro Baul field image (Photo by Patrick Ryan Williams, courtesy of The Field Museum)
While one might be tempted to protest that perhaps they merely had a sip or two before engaging in ritual vandalism, there is archaeological proof that indeed, the Wari leaders got rip-roaring drunk first. The remains of Cerro Baúl’s brewery revealed a capacity of around 1,800 litres per batch, with women doing the brewing. Fermentation followed, and finally the drink was spiced with pepper-tree seeds—a version of the drink reserved for nobles among the Wari.
Brewery at Cerro Baul
Based on the mug fragments, it has been determined that 12 of the participants were ‘lesser nobles’, because their drinking vessels held a smaller amount of liquid (355ml), and another four of the participants may have been senior officials or much higher on the social ladder, as their mugs contained much more elaborate iconography and held nearly 2L of beer.
And drinking wasn’t all they did—the spread was something worthy of a modern Super Bowl party, with the archaeological record showing remains of llama, deer, and a variety of fish.
Of course, the question remains: Why have a feast, get slobbering drunk, and then torch the place?
While the answer isn’t certain, it turns out that settling a town on top of a 600-meter mesa doesn’t make the best place to live. It takes a lot of time and effort to haul resources up the side of a mountain, which may have resulted in someone realizing the impracticality of building a city where no one could get to it. Good for defenses, bad for… everything else.
The ritual destruction, however, was likely a mechanism to preserve the purity of their historical living spaces—torching the brewery and subsequently other important buildings such as the temple and palace meant no one else could re-use the buildings for their own purposes or defile their sacred spaces.
And to finish the job? The Wari smashed their mugs in the fire. Of course the real question that follows is: With half the town on fire, where did they go to sleep it off?
When most people look at a guinea pig running around in its cage they may not realize that these cute, furry creatures are actually an important part of traditional South American culture. Today, these small rodents are kept as pets by people around the world but they have actually played an important role in the lives of many of the people living in and around the Andes Mountains.
This small, friendly rodent was domesticated as early as 5000 BCE. Its earliest use was as a food source and they are still kept for this purpose in many areas of South America today. Guinea pigs are easy to care for and feed because they do well on a variety of different foods. A family can use its own food scraps to feed the creatures which are an important source of protein. Tourists who travel to Peru and other countries in the region are often surprised when they are offered these small creatures as a meal.
The guinea pig has also had great religious significance as well. Some civilizations, such as the Moche civilization worshipped the animals and often included them in their artwork. The Moche lived in northern Peru from about100 CE to 800 CE. Statues of guinea pigs that date from 500 BCE to 500 CE have been unearthed in various archaeological digs in Ecuador and Peru.
In many areas of the Andes, Western medicine is still not readily available. They still use the guinea pig in the same traditional healing rituals that have been performed for thousands of years. Folk doctors, known as curanderos use the rodents as a diagnostic tool. They rub the rodents against the body of the individual that is sick and it is then believed that the rodent can diagnose what the patient’s medical problem is. Black guinea pigs are considered to be particularly useful in obtaining a diagnosis. If the folk doctor wants to know whether the cure has been effective, the guinea pig may be cut open so that the folk doctor can study its entrails. Guinea pigs are also exchanged as gifts and are a part of many different traditions. They are often used in some religious ceremonies and social cultures.
In Western civilizations, the guinea pig has had a much easier life. In many countries they are kept as pets. They first appeared in Europe and quickly became a hit with the upper classes. Some members of the royalty also kept these creatures as pets. Queen Elizabeth I was known to have had guinea pigs as pets. These creatures are friendly and curious and their personalities have made them popular as pets even up to the present day.
There are many modern varieties of domestic guinea pigs. Many of these were actually established between 1200 CE and 1532 CE, when the Spanish conquest took place. Modern varieties include the Abyssinian, which looks like it has cowlicks all over its body, the Peruvian, which has long, straight hair, the Sheltie, which also has long straight hair, and the Texel. The Texel also has long hair but it is curly instead of straight.
Some modern snakes can reach lengths of over 30 feet which may seem massive when compared to other animals. The remains of a prehistoric constrictor, which has been named Titanoboa cerrejonensis is more massive by far than any snake that is now living. The name comes from the fact that the remains were found at the Cerrejon Coal Mine which is located in northern Columbia. The discovery was made in 2008.
The snake lived approximately 60 million years ago. Remains indicate that when full grown, these creatures could achieve lengths of 42 feet (13 meters) or more and could weigh up to 2,500 pounds (1,135 kilograms) making it approximately twice the size of any modern snake and similar in weight to a small car. It had a diameter of approximately three feet. To put the size in more perspective, this meant that the snake was roughly as long as a T-Rex. Modern-day anacondas have been measured at lengths of up to 28 feet and girths of up to 44 inches.
The snake’s remains were found in Columbia. They were discovered by an international team of scientists. The remains are being studied at the University of Florida. It was a bit of a miracle that scientists were able to discover the snake due to the area where it lived. The tropics are a difficult place to find fossils. This is due to the fact that much of the area is covered by a forest and this makes it difficult to find the usual kinds of exposed rocks where fossils are usually located.
The snake killed its prey in the same way that modern constrictors do. It would wrap around any animal that it caught and would squeeze it until the creature suffocated. This would have been a slow death and not a particularly comfortable one.
Titanoboa lived in the time immediately after the dinosaurs became extinct. Other fossils that were found in the area surrounding Titanoboa’s remains showed that the snake likely ate animals such as giant turtles and prehistoric crocodiles.
The discovery of Titanoboa is important because it gives scientists an idea of what the world was like after the dinosaurs became extinct. Scientists have made educated guesses but the fact that there are few vertebrate fossils available that are known to be from this time period. The fact that the snake was able to reach such a large size is also important because it shows what the climate would have been like during this time period. A snake or other cold blooded creature can only grow to a certain point under certain environmental conditions. A larger snake or other reptile would have meant that the environment was warmer than it is today.
It also shows that the current ecosystem that was in place in the area is very similar to the one that is present today. Remains of the ancestors of modern day reptiles such as snakes, turtles and crocodiles were discovered showing that the current ecosystem was around for at least 65 million years. Because of this, scientists feel that the discovery of Columbian fossils may have been one of the most exciting and valuable discoveries to date.